World body that could protect elephants—decides not to

Earlier this month the nations of the world met to decide on how to deal with the sale of wild animals and their parts. Yes, that is still the relationship we have with them. Highest on many minds was the most acute driving force behind the most talked-about, most widely cared-about conservation issue on Earth at the moment: how to save elephants. How to stop the bloodshed and precipitous decline of Africa’s elephants due to killing for their tusks.

The nations decided to do almost nothing.

Ivory is about elephants. Elephants that are intelligent and sensitive and social and live with their families and need their mothers. But for many people and many governments, ivory is about “trade.” Sales. Commerce. Enforcement. Money.

International trading in ivory and other “wildlife products” is regulated through a treaty called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES, pronounced SY-tees). The many nations that abide by this treaty meet every three years to consider new proposals and adjustments. They keep lists. If they put a species on the list called Appendix I, sale of that species across national borders is not allowed.

Twenty-nine African countries went into the recent meeting in Johannesberg wanting a total ban on ivory sale. But South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana—with the largest remaining elephant population of any country—wanted to extend the possibility of selling ivory and killing elephants. During intense debate Botswana surprised everyone by joining the others in calling for an all-out ban. Even China came out strong. It was looking promising.

Philo, a large bull elephant, Samburu, Kenya, 2013. Photo: Ike Leonard
Philo, a large bull elephant, Samburu, Kenya, 2013. Photo: Ike Leonard

Then an amazing thing happened. The European Union, voting as one “member” of CITES but with each of its 28 countries still—nonsensically and disruptively—getting a separately counted vote, came out against the total ban. So, did the United States. And so, incredibly, did the World Wildlife Fund. WWF’s wants more enforcement toward ending the illegal ivory trade—as if a total ban would not help do that.

Instead of a ban, the CITES nations agreed to tinker around the edges. The procedure for deciding how to let South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe sell ivory was suspended, leaving the countries that want to sell in limbo about how to proceed; they’ll be back. And all nations were advised to end internal sale of ivory. The recommendation is non-binding. Japan has already said it won’t comply. If you want to look at that glass as half-full, then drink deep. If you care about elephants, then you’ll want something stiffer.

Philo, dead. This photo was taken four days after previous photo, in the adjacent Buffalo Springs Reserve, Kenya, 2013. Photo: Carl Safina

Many conservation organizations who worked hard for elephants have put a positive spin on the outcome, since this is what they got and it’s a little better than nothing. For my part, I’m disgusted—with the dithering, the murky messaging, the politics, the weakness. If we cannot take a strong stand for elephants—the world’s most beloved and most recognizable creature—is there hope for a better deal between humanity and the living world? Indeed, is there simply even hope for elephants?

In understand there are problems. In understand that humanity’s decision to manage elephants and banish them to reserves and parks requires money. I understand that expanding farms often come in conflict with elephants and that local people may be more inclined to keep elephants around at all if they can kill some for cash. I understand that elephants will eventually die of old age and leave tusks worth money. I understand that a ban does not end criminal activity unless there’s enforcement.

I also understand this: whenever anyone is allowed to sell some ivory, there are people ready to kill elephants illegally wherever elephants live. By now everyone should know this in spades.

In the 1980s CITES enacted a legal ivory sales-quota system. It didn’t work. Elephant numbers continued plummeting because continuing to allow selling certain ivory facilitated easy laundering of any ivory. That was Lesson One.

The only thing that has ever worked was a bitterly won worldwide ivory ban, first implemented in 1990. Zero allowed. Ivory prices instantly collapsed. Elephant populations slowly increased. The ivory ban worked. Lesson Two.

But it lasted only until 1999. That year CITES allowed Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia to sell 50 metric tons of stockpiled ivory to Japan, calling it a “one-time-sale.” Then China wanted in. In 2008, CITES administrators let China buy stockpiled ivory from Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe—the second “one-time” sale.

Failure to learn from mistakes is unwise, but failure to learn from success takes true determination.

“Ivory is illegal; don’t buy it” is a clear message to consumers, law enforcers, and governments. “Some ivory is illegal, but some is OK,” creates confusion that offers perfect cover for killing elephants. Giving China some stockpiled ivory opened floodgates to laundering illegal tusks. Immediately, poaching surged, condemning tens of thousands of elephants to death while fueling human bloodshed. In Kenya, for instance, killing ballooned eightfold from fewer than 50 elephants killed in 2007 to nearly 400 in 2012. Aggressive enforcement has recently brought that number down. But we have very far to go to ensure a future for elephants. From an estimated ten million elephants in the early 1900s, there are fewer than half that now. And an estimated 30- to 40,000 elephants are being killed every year—an elephant every 15 minutes. Today Africa’s elephant population is about 100 fewer than yesterday’s.

All of this robs elephants of course, but people too. In Kenya alone, 300,000 people rely directly on tourism for employment and every tourist comes wanting to see elephants. Poaching for profit is a poverty-maker.

Acutely, an elephant’s problem is ivory. Chronically the problem is shrinking space. Rich or poor, humans seem too much of a good thing. One wonders where this trend of growing human numbers and appetites, afflicting elephants and humans alike, is headed. The smallest slices of any pie get cut at the most crowded tables. Can we afford to value elephants, and human beings, any less than we do? Can we afford not to value them more? I am very fond of civilization, but what’s the plan?

How with this rage will beauty hold a plea.

—Shakespeare, Sonnet 65



Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.